Lowering Inmate Phone Charges

WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must lower phone call rates for inmates in order to maintain critical family connections and reduce recidivism rates, according to a congressional coalition.

The Congressional Black Caucus has called upon the FCC to eliminate per call charges and “establish a reasonable per minute rate cap” in order for inmates and their families to remain in communication, according to a statement by the Congressional Black Caucus.

“These kinds of fees force many families to make very difficult decisions about whether to forgo contact with their family or loved ones or to do something else because the cost becomes prohibitive,” said Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio. “A number of studies and feedback directly from inmates and their families all point to a powerful correlation between regular communication between inmates and their families and a measurable decrease in prisoner recidivism rates.”

Fudge said costly inmate calls — as much as $4 per phone call plus a 55-cent per minute charge — can cause serious financial strain on inmates and their families. According to a statement issued by FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a 15-minute phone call from a prison on the East Coast to the West Coast costs about $17.

Martha Wright, grandmother of Ulandis Forte, a former inmate who served an 18-year sentence in several state prisons throughout the country, petitioned the FCC beginning in 2003 to lower the rates. Health conditions and financial limitations kept Wright from being able to visit her grandson, who served his sentence in correctional facilities in Arizona, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Wright urged the FCC to cap the phone charges at seven cents per minute for phone calls to correctional institutions.

Forte said being able to communicate with his grandmother held deep meaning for him during his incarceration, but that communication often came with financial challenges.

“There’s been times when she did have to choose over paying for her medication in order to talk to me,” Forte said.

Wright and Forte were present at a press conference hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus last week in Washington, D.C.

“She’s been my rock, she’s been my support and everything I could do from this point on to help this situation, I just want to be able to pick up the torch and just keep it moving,” Forte said.

But for correctional facilities, the loss of revenue from inmate phone calls may mean jeopardizing programs for inmates.

“It would dramatically impact the way we run our facilities,” said Keith Royal, president of the California State Sheriff’s Association.

Royal said with tight budget constraints in California, the loss in funds could put much needed inmate benefits at risk.

“In California, we use any revenue we get to directly fund the welfare of the inmates,” he said.

The FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in December 2012 and opened for public comments on the proposal for 60 days thereafter. After comments were gathered, the FCC issued a 30-day period in order to respond, however, no comments or responses have been made public.